The title of defensive end encompasses two very different positions in two different defensive schemes.
In the 4-3, defensive ends primarily rush the passer, with playing the run a secondary task, and in some cases a nonexistent one.
Meanwhile, the 3-4 defensive end is essentially a defensive tackle, playing on the ends of a three-man line and being asked to clog the holes of the offensive line and allow the linebackers to make tackles.
There are plenty of each available in this year's free agent class, but how many can be significant contributors to an NFL team?
These are my top five defensive ends on the free agent market:
(Note: This series of lists only includes unrestricted free agents, as those are the only type that can be signed without giving up compensation. Restricted free agents—especially the best ones—will cost valuable draft picks.)
Already listed atop my outside linebackers list for his potential in the 3-4, Peppers is easily the best defensive end on the open market this season.
During his eight-year career, Peppers has recorded 81 sacks (more than 10 per season) and 30 forced fumbles.
Peppers has disappeared at times during his career (only 2.5 sacks in 2007), but he's been extremely dominant at others, has plenty of years left, and is a great all-around talent.
An outside linebacker in the Miami Dolphins' 3-4 scheme in 2009, Taylor has played most of his illustrious career at defensive end in the 4-3.
Despite being 35, Taylor is still a very productive and reliable player, making positive impacts as a pass rusher as well as against the run.
Still in great physical condition, Taylor has a few good years left and can still help any one of the 32 NFL teams.
A different kind of "defensive end" than the first two players on this list, Seymour is one of the NFL's best defensive tackles/3-4 defensive ends.
Still just 30 years old, the three-time Super Bowl champion is stout against the run and is an excellent pass rusher for someone that plays his position. He could play all over the defensive line in any scheme and will be highly sought after.
Kampman struggled a bit in the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker in 2009, recording just 3.5 sacks in nine games with the Packers before tearing his ACL.
He's not the flashiest pass rusher and doesn't change games, but he has a great motor and is at least above average in all areas. If his rehab is on track, he should earn a starting gig somewhere in 2010.
Kyle Vanden Bosch
After racking up 31 sacks during his first three seasons with the Titans, including two 12+ sack seasons in 2005 and 2007, Vanden Bosch has fallen off lately with just 7.5 sacks over the past two years, including just three sacks in 2009.
The 31-year-old is still a solid all-around defensive end and clearly has the talent to put up good sack numbers, so he would be worth picking up as a starter on a two- or three-year deal.
Beyond the Top Five
- Justin Bannan, Baltimore Ravens — A rotational defensive end in Baltimore's 3-4, Bannan has been a reserve for most of his career. He doesn't offer any more upside at age 30, but he's an inexpensive and experienced backup.
- Dwan Edwards, Baltimore Ravens — It's been a bit of a slow development for the Ravens' second-round pick in 2004, but Edwards has become a solid 3-4 end and is someone that could deserve a chance to start somewhere at age 28.
- Jarvis Green, New England Patriots — Green has been a reliable backup defensive end in the Patriots' 3-4 for a long time, but he's shown to be mediocre when called on to start. He should continue to be a backup, but nothing more.
- Vonnie Holliday, Denver Broncos — Let go by the Dolphins last offseason and unsigned until Denver picked him up just before the 2009 season, Holliday was an excellent reserve for the Broncos with five sacks and good run defense playing about half the time. He won't get handed any starting gigs or long-term deals at age 34, but he's still got some gas in the tank and is worth picking up at a low price.
- Leonard Little, St. Louis Rams — Little was once a premier pass rusher, but he's fallen off in recent years and has just one double-digit sack season since 2003. He can still contribute to many teams, but at 35 is probably not starter material.
- Adewale Ogunleye, Chicago Bears — Ogunleye isn't a dominate pass rusher, but he's a solid overall end against the pass and the run. He's still just 32, and though he's coming off an injury, he could serve as a starter for another year or two.
- Cory Redding, Seattle Seahawks — Redding was a long-time starter in Detroit before arriving in Seattle in 2009, and he's more of a defensive tackle-type player. He did rack up eight sacks in 2006, but profiles more as a backup at this point.
- Mike Vrabel, Kansas City Chiefs — A long-time 3-4 outside linebacker in Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City, Vrabel does profile as a 4-3 defensive end. A position switch seems unlikely at age 34, however, and he doesn't have much left as a pass rusher.
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